Ethiopian Judaism nearly identical to that practiced during Second Temple Period
Researcher Dr. Yossi Ziv has researched Ethiopian Judaism and found an amazing discovery: Ethiopian Jews' customs and traditions extremely similar to those described in Dead Sea Scrolls, Second Temple Era texts.
Yael Freidson|Published: 10.12.16 , 23:35
Dr. Yossi Ziv has been researching the religious rituals of the Ethiopian Jewish population still in Ethiopia and discovered that they maintained the same customs and traditions as the Jews of the Second Temple period for the past two thousand years.
"It’s knowledge which hasn't been written anywhere, and has been preserved in their traditions," the researcher said.
"They have been curating ancient customs that have disappeared from the world. They provide examples of how the leaders of the nation of Israel would have behaved during the time of the Second Temple."
Israeli-Ethiopian elders performing the Sigid ritual in Jerusalem (Photo: Reuters)
The professor released his findings at a seminar which was held at the Kfar Etzion Field School right before the Jewish-Ethiopian holiday of Sigid.
Ziv said that many Jewish-Ethiopian customs go against modern Jewish practice, but perfectly align with customs and rituals described on scrolls found in the Qumran caves and in books dating back to the Second Temple Period. The Qumran Caves are where the Dead Sea Scrolls were found, which include the third oldest Hebrew Bible ever found.
Some of these Second Temple Era customs include not lighting Shabbat candles, adhering to an ancient custom prohibiting the use of fire lit even before Shabbat started. Along with this, no flame is to be passed from one vessel to another on Shabbat, even if it was lit before Shabbat came in.
"They don't even adhere to the famous rule which says that 'Shabbat rules may be disregarded for the purpose of saving a life,'" Ziv said. "For the Ethiopian Jews, the sanctity of Shabbat must be preserved, even at the cost of human life."
Evidence of this stringent observance of Shabbat was also seen in the Dead Sea Scrolls.
Ethiopian women at the Sigid festival (Photo: Reuters)
Ziv added that there were different sects of Jews living during the time of the Second Temple—the Pharisees, Sadducees, Essenes, and Zealots—who all lived according to different beliefs and rituals. Jewish rituals and customs today mostly take after the Pharisee tradition.
Another example in the differences between mainstream Judaism and Ethiopian Judaism relates to sex during Shabbat. According to modern Jewish tradition, marital relations are not only permitted, but encouraged on the day of rest. Meanwhile, Ethiopian tradition holds that all sex is forbidden on Shabbat so as not to sully the body. Examples of this Ethiopian tradition have been found in the Dead Sea Scrolls.
The discrepancies between the more "modern" Jewish law and the law of the Ethiopian Jewish elders—known as the Kessim—can be seen in different areas of Jewish law.
According to mainstream Jewish custom, people in mourning refrain from cutting their hair or shaving their beards for a specified period of time, whereas Ethiopian custom is for mourners to cut their hair short and shave their beards—another tradition Ziv saw written in texts from the Second Temple Era.
Ethiopian Jewish women in Jerusalem at the Sigid ritual (Photo: Reuters)
"After the Prophet Job underwent his bad tidings, it is written that he cut his hair. It was also written in some of the writings of Isaiah and Ezekiel that the Jews would cut their hair short during periods of mourning," Ziv said.
Another prominent Ethiopian Jewish tradition is strict observance of purity laws. For instance, when a woman is menstruating in Ethiopian Jewish society, she is sent to live in a specified tent outside of the village until she becomes "pure" once again, as is prescribed to be done in the Temple Scroll of the Dead Sea Scrolls.
Kessim Israeli-Ethiopian leaders (Photo: Reuters)
This ritual purity is another reason why ritual circumcision is not carried out in Ethiopian Jewish synagogues. Therefore, the circumcisions are carried out next to the tent of the menstruating women, and often done by the women. It is only after the first 40 days after a boy is born that an Ethiopian mother can return to the village. If a girl is born, then the mother must wait 80 days. The baby naming would then occur in the village.
'They were a part of us, but were then cut off'
The differences between the rituals and customs of mainstream Judaism and Ethiopian Judaism undermined the authority of the traditional Ethiopian Jewish leaders after they made aliyah to Israel, and even undermined the Ethiopians' claims that they are indeed Jews.
However, Ziv says that the customs and traditions of the Ethiopian Jews and their strong resemblance to Jewish traditions during the Second Temple Period only serve to strengthen their connection to Judaism as a whole.
"I'm convinced that this community was a part of the nation of Israel during ancient times, but they were cut off. We don't know when or why, but it occurred before the Pharisic tradition became the mainstream Jewish tradition," Dr. Ziv said."The Jews of Ethiopia lived in exile and in complete isolation from the rest of the nation of Israel. However, they continued to keep the traditions of our forefathers up until this very day."
Falash Mura is the name given to the community of Ethiopians who practice the Jewish faith and claim the right to live in Israel. Every year, the city of Gondar hosts what is billed as the largest Passover celebration in the world. The Falash Mura community bakes and sews for days, preparing for the Jewish holiday. While thousands of other Falash Mura have been airlifted to Israel, for these devotees, the struggle to return to what they see as their spiritual homeland continues. Filmmaker Lior Sperandeo documents this Ethiopian “Jewish island” where people dream of immigrating to Israel. I spoke with him about his The People of project.
Who are the people you feature in your film?
In the local Amharic language, they are called the Falash Mura, “a man with no land.” These are Jews who in the 19th century were converted to Christianity and thus were not welcomed to Israel like the rest of Ethiopia’s Jewry. Falash Mura is not a nickname favored by the Jews of Ethiopia, but rather a moniker that stuck through time. Their dream is to immigrate to Israel, where they can practice a normal Jewish life.
Why did you choose to focus on this community?
I’ve heard about the Falash Mura’s struggle to return to their spiritual homeland long before going to Ethiopia, but the logic seemed sound: If they had chosen to convert and turn their backs on Judaism, why should they be allowed automatic citizenship in the Jewish state? It was only when I set foot in Gondar that I understood how wrong I was. I found myself in a beautiful ”Jewish island” in the middle of Africa, and I knew that a new journey was about to begin. This is another muted community with a story that has to be told.
What was the best part about the experience?
Changing my perspective on this matter. The stated reason for not allowing the Falash Mura to return to Israel is that they are not recognized as Jews. But after my visit I can testify that this is an absurd claim. In Gondar I found one of the most vibrant and dedicated Jewish communities that I have experienced. These are men and women who value their Jewish religion and traditions in the most genuine way. In 1950, Israel created the Law of Return, which gives all Jews and spouses of Jews the right to immigrate to and settle in Israel. This made me pause and ask myself, What is the real reason Israel won’t let them in? I’m not sure a Jewish community in any other continent [would] be treated this way. This is why I created this film, to shed more light on this matter in order to help this community to fulfill a dream.
Were there any challenges?
It’s the biggest and also the most common challenge for a photographer in a foreign country: building a level of trust with the community. It is usually a time-consuming and exhausting process but also the only way to peel back the layers and reach the depths of the issues I am trying to explore. The key is finding a common language that allows me to connect to my subject and go from there. I started showing up every morning at the synagogue in Gondar, with a kippah on my head and the camera in my hands. I am never at ease when I enter this holy building. It feels like my presence is interrupting something important and bigger than me. This was not the case with the synagogue in Gondar. My presence was welcome. I had every reason to feel like an intruder, but I felt at home. It took only a few days before the members of the community got used to the idea of this guy, uncomfortably wearing his kippah, running around snapping photos of them. They started to open up, and I became that fly on the wall.
How long did the shoot last?
About a week, just before the Jewish holiday of Passover, [which] commemorates the story of Exodus, when the Israelites were freed from slavery in Egypt. Every year Gondar hosts the largest Passover celebration in the world, with over 3,000 guests. Members of the community work for days, sewing and baking thousands of handmade round matzoth. On the night of Passover, each song and verse received a new meaning to me—to think that I have the privilege of celebrating the festival of freedom and liberty, while here my Jewish brothers and sisters are still waiting for their exodus.
What are you working on next?
I continue with my latest web series The People Of, where I highlight different human and social struggles around the world in order to create a tool and voice for muted populations. I’m looking for my next destination.
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According to a 2014 report Ethiopian Israelis have the highest poverty rate, earn significantly less, and live in more densely packed neighborhoods.
July 31, 2016 at 1:33 pm
Widespread discrimination of Israel’s Ethiopian Jews, including in public institutions, was the focus of a review submitted to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu by Israel’s justice ministry on Sunday, reported the local Yedioth Ahronoth newspaper.
A large portion of the report focused on reforming policies in the education system, where children of Ethiopian Jews have allegedly been turned away from public schools and faced discrimination from other Israeli parents. Instead they have often been placed into a separate special schooling system.
It also highlighted discrimination by welfare officers against Ethiopian Jewish families, in religious institutions, healthcare and from police.
Though Ethiopian Israelis have long complained about discrimination, the issue gained widespread attention last year when a video of an Ethiopian Israeli soldier being beaten by police prompted protests in Tel Aviv, which police used tear gas to disperse.
According to a 2014 report by the government-sponsored Ethiopian National Project, the 135,000 Ethiopian Israelis have the highest poverty rate, earn significantly less, live in more densely packed neighborhoods and face disadvantages in education compared to the rest of the Jewish population.
A Coptic Orthodox Church delegation is to visit Jerusalem on Tuesday in response to an invitation from the Ethiopian Orthodox Church to discuss the renovation of Deir El Sultan monastery in the Old City.
Spokesman for the Coptic Orthodox Church, Boulos Halim, told al-Masry al-Youm that the Ethiopian Orthodox Church cannot renovate the monastery without the approval of the Coptic Church.
The two church denominations have been contesting ownership of the monastery since 1967. According to the website of the Coptic Orthodox Patriarchate in Jerusalem, the Egyptian claim to the monastery dates back to the reign of the Muslim Sultan Al Mo-ez (1033-1054).
The group say Egyptian delegates used to transport the Gezia money (Islamic taxes) collected from the Copts of Egypt to the Muslim Caliphate in Baghdad.
A tale is told that once, the delegate was attacked by thieves and hid the Gezia money in the Coptic Patriarchate. Sultan Al Mo-ez thereafter granted Deir-El-Sultan to the Coptic families for their loyalty, and as a rest house for his delegates on the long road to Iraq.
Deir El Sultan monastery is nestled on the roof of the Holy Sepulchrewithin the ruins of the Martyrium Church, occupying 1800sq.m of space.
According to the pan-Arab newspaper Asharq Al-Awsat, after the six days war in 1967 Israel seized the monastery and expelled the Egyptian monks, handing it over to the Ethiopians . The Coptic Church resorted to the Israeli court which ruled that the monastery should be returned to the Egyptian church, but no ruling has been enforced.
GONDAR, Ethiopia — When the congregation at the HaTikvah Synagogue in this northern Ethiopian town rises to sing Israel’s national anthem at the end of every service, the mournful melody is transformed into a rousing chant, a determined shout to the heavens — and to the doors of Israel’s parliament, the Knesset — that their prayers to immigrate to the land of Zion are heard.
While Sharansky celebrated at the airport, left behind in Gondar — as well as in the country’s capital, Addis Ababa — were approximately 9,000 Ethiopian Jews who did not qualify for aliyah according to standards from the Ministry of the Interior, but still deeply identify as Jewish.
Benjamin Netanyahu and his wife Sara speaking to the press at Ben Gurion International Airport on July 4, 2016, at the start of a trip to Africa. (Raphael Ahren/Times of Israel))
The Ethiopian immigration was supposed to begin in June. But as Netanyahu flew to Africa on a four-day tour this week, his office refused to comment on reasons why the process has not started.
Netanyahu is touring Uganda, Kenya, Rwanda, and he will arrive in Ethiopia on Thursday. There, Netanyahu will meet with politicians and businessmen, and take a tour of the national museum, but his official schedule does not include any meetings with the Jewish community.
The Jews left behind in Ethiopia are classified as “Falashmura,” a term for Ethiopian Jews whose ancestors converted to Christianity, often under duress, generations ago. But most Jews in Ethiopia today reject this term. They are willing to go through the conversion process when they arrive in Israel, as some are not matrilineal Jewish, but they bristle at the suggestion that they are not ethnically Jewish.
Falashmura and those still in Ethiopia are not considered Jewish under the Law of Return, which requires one Jewish grandparent and disqualifies someone who has converted to another religion, even if the conversion happened a long time ago.
Jewish Agency spokesman Avi Mayer stressed that while the agency facilitates the process of moving Ethiopians to Israel, the Interior Ministry is the body that makes the lists of those who are eligible.
“Since the individuals in question have not been found eligible for aliyah [under the Law of Return] by the Ministry of the Interior, their ability to immigrate to Israel is subject to ad hoc decisions by the Israeli government, made on a humanitarian basis,” Mayer said. “The Jewish Agency will carry out any decision by the Government of Israel pertaining to immigration from Ethiopia to the best of our ability, as we have over the past six decades.”
Members of the Falash Mura Jewish Ethiopian community wait for prayer service before attending the Passover seder meal, in the synagogue in Gondar, Ethiopia, April 22, 2016 (Miriam Alster/Flash90)
Likud MK Avraham Neguise, chairman of the Committee for Immigration, Absorption and Diaspora Affairs. (Government Press Office)
So now, after three years of negotiations, false starts, and dashed hopes, the first new Ethiopian Jewish immigrants are praying that their plans to being arriving at Ben Gurion this summer will still come to fruition. Neguise declined to comment on an expected timeframe, citing ongoing negotiations with the Prime Minister’s Office.
The long period of limbo, of being unsure whether they when or if they will move to Israel, has plunged many Jewish families in Ethiopia deeper into poverty. They left their villages behind 20 years ago, destroying the social fabric that holds families together in order to move to Gondar or Addis Ababa to be closer to the Jewish Agency offices. As such, they haven’t started businesses because they are always expecting to leave; they rent instead of saving to buy a home, leaving them poorer each month as rents increase.
The Jewish Agency used to run a feeding program for the Jewish community, for nursing and expectant mothers and children up to age 6, but that program ended in 2013 when they announced the end of Ethiopian aliyah. Although the Jewish Agency has recently returned to the area, including sponsoring a Passover seder in April 2016, the feeding program has not resumed. In 2011, researchers found that 41% of the Jewish children in Gondar were malnourished, and in the 12-23 month age range, 67% were malnourished. The average urban malnutrition rate in Ethiopia is 30%.
Who are these Jews, the ones left behind Ethiopia? The following are eleven personal stories of heartbreak, waiting, and ultimately, hope.
Eyayu Abuhay (right), one of five members of the leadership committee of the Addis Ababa community, and community member Ayeneixi Moges in the youth room at the Addis Ababa synagogue on May 6, 2016. (Melanie Lidman/Times of Israel)
Eyayu Abuhay, 28, committee member, Addis Ababa
“We are the last ones left,” said Eyayu Abuhay, 28, one of five elected committee members who leads the community in Ethiopia’s capital, Addis Ababa. “I have no family here. We don’t know why we’re left. They say we’re Falashmura but we reject this name.”
The 3,000-strong Jewish community in Addis is spread out over the outskirts of the city as members can no longer afford to live near the synagogue, which is next to the Israeli Embassy. Now, community members find themselves traveling up to two hours by public transport to reach the synagogue. Shabbat services attract only about 100 people, though hundreds come on Sunday mornings over the weekend.
Abuhay says the reason he is still in Ethiopia is dirty politics and racism.
“They are ignoring us by our color,” he said. “We are Ethiopian Jews, so yes, we look like Ethiopians. Yemenite Jews look like Yemenites, and Dutch Jews look like Dutch. What do they expect?”
Ambanesh Tekeba, 32 sits in the HaTikva synagogue on April 25, 2016. Tekeba is the head of the Jewish community in Gondar, at a time when few women hold leadership positions. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)
Ambanesh Tekeba, 32, head of the community, Gondar
In Ethiopia’s patriarchal society, community head Ambanesh Tekeba is an anomaly, a woman elected to lead the Jewish community of Gondar. Tall and striking, she projects calm and competence as she oversees the logistics for all of the community, whether it is directing 3,000 people for the seder or giving a tour to Ethiopian soldiers who have been assigned to protect the synagogue.
“After the Jewish Agency closed everything here [in August, 2013], we started the congregation anew,” she said. Tekeba was one of the 15 people involved in restarting the synagogue community, renaming it “HaTikva” or “The Hope.” She still smarts from the Jewish Agency’s treatment of her and other members of the Jewish community from previous years, and said that in previous years she wasn’t even able to attend the community seder because she wasn’t “on the list of Jews.”
Tekeba said she wasn’t on those lists because her mother is not Jewish, though her father is Jewish. She is also married to a non-Jewish man, though believes the issue with aliyah is tied to her patrilineal Judaism.
In addition to her work at the synagogue and her job as a community liaison to the English children’s charity Kindu Trust, Tekeba is also balancing the demands of her family in a society where female leadership is rare.
“I’m a mother and a wife, but I don’t have time to care for my kids and husband,” she said. “It’s also hard to manage people when you’re female. It’s very unusual, and sometimes I’m afraid [to manage them].”
“Sometimes people make conflicts, but she makes peace,” said Gashaw Abinet, a cantor who works closely with Tekeba. “She works hard to get what’s necessary for people.”
Tekeba is serving her second two-year term as the head of the community. Previously, she also served as a secretary under the North American Conference on Ethiopian Jewry. NACOEJ provided assistance to the Ethiopian Jewish community in Gondar from 1982 to 2011.
Though she is excited to go to Israel after 17 years in Gondar, there will be some bittersweet moments leaving the place she’s worked so hard to rebuild after the Jewish Agency withdrawal. “I will miss everything about this synagogue,” she said, “especially the prayers, praying all together.”
Gashaw Abinet, 29, with his two-and-a-half-year-old son, Alieazar, on April 26, 2016 at their home in Gondar, which is just steps away from the HaTikva synagogue where he is a cantor. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)
Gashaw Abinet, 29, cantor, Gondar
It was the language of the Jewish Agency withdrawal in 2013 that made Gashaw Abinet, one of the cantors of the Jewish community in Gondar, the angriest. “How could they say there’s no more Jews in Ethiopia?” he asked. “They know us! Asher [Fentahun Seyoum, the former Jewish Agency emissary to Ethiopia] knows me. I was a hazzan, I was a Judaism teacher when he was here.”
Abinet thinks he was not on the lists for aliyah because his mother was raised by a Jewish stepmother, but his biological grandmother may have been Christian, though the family is not sure. His mother’s stepsisters, who feel like sisters to her, are in Israel.
Abinet serves as an unofficial tour guide for many visitors, since he has excellent Hebrew and English and lives just steps from the synagogue with his wife, Adanech, and two-and-a-half-year-old son, Alieazar.
“We’re continuing to explain to all the tourists who want to hear our story, and I want to tell them our story,” he said. “It was a sad story but because of these people we are succeeding,” Abinet said, citing MKs Neguise and Amsalem, the Jewish Agency’s Rabbi Menachem Waldman, and strong local leadership. “Soon, aliyah will start, and this is so exciting.”
As for those who are stalling the process of Ethiopian aliyah, Abinet hopes they will soon change their mind. “We are all the nation of Israel… Now with God’s help this is the time to return to Israel, and they can’t stop the nation of Israel from bringing us together. I know that God made a miracle for the Jews in Egypt, now he should do it for us as well.”
Simegnew Yosef Naga, 34, holds up a photo of his grandmother, who lives in Ramle, in his home in Gondar on April 15, 2016. (Melanie Lidman/Times of Israel)
Simegnew Yosef Naga, 34, cantor, Gondar
“I see the pictures in Israel [of Ethiopian Israelis protesting], and they’re holding up our pictures,” said Simegnew Yosef Naga, 34, who has been waiting in Gondar to make aliyah to Israel for 18 years. On the mud wall of his rented home in Gondar, where he lives with his wife, Tigest (Patience) Kasi Tagenyi, 26, and their three children, he hangs a photo of his grandmother, Yerumnesh Werku, who moved to Israel in 2001.
“She’s 90 years old now,” said Naga, who also has an uncle in Israel with nephews and nieces that he’s never met. “We’re only in touch by phone. I hope to see her before she dies.”
Naga says his mother, who is still living in Gondar, is Jewish, but his father is not, and he blames corruption for the reason he’s still in Ethiopia. His wife is Jewish from her father’s side.
Naga serves as one of the HaTikvah community’s five hazzans (cantors), an elected position he’s held for the past 15 months. When he’s not leading services from the bima for the twice-daily minyan or Shabbat, he patrols the kids section with an official stride, shushing all chatter with nothing more than a stern look and a “shh!”
Naga learned Hebrew from the Jewish Agency’s Jewish school, and has taught himself conversational Hebrew. When he strolls down the street in Gondar, everyone knows who he is, from the young schoolgirls to the older shopkeepers. But still, Naga takes care to remove his kippah when he leaves the synagogue grounds.
“In Ethiopia, it’s really hard for Jews,” he said. “In the villages, people called us ‘falasha’ [the derogatory word for Jews].”
“In this whole world we are all one, it doesn’t matter if you’re Muslim, Jewish, Christian,” he said. “But in Genesis, the Jews were the ones who got the Torah.” This same promise means that the Jews belong in Israel, he said. “With God’s help, whoever has family should go [to Israel]. Others wait until God only knows when. But we believe that within five years we’ll be there, too.”
Alementu Lake, 25, a drink seller who lives near the center of Gondar, with her two-year-old daughter, Habtam, who had just woken up from a nap, on April 15, 2016. (Melanie Lidman/Times of Israel)
Alementu Lake, 25, drink seller, Gondar
Alementu Lake barely remembers her village in the Gojam region of Ethiopia, more than a day’s journey from Gondar. For the past 18 years, she has lived next to Gondar’s central piazza, an urban neighborhood that is a riot of sounds and colors, horse-drawn carts bringing vegetables and jerry cans down dirt streets. The mud houses are painted bright colors, and children dart from open doorways into the street, weaving between horses and motorcycle tuktuks and minibuses.
Her two brothers and sister moved to Israel three years ago, and are still living in an absorption center. “It’s politics, I try not to think about it,” she said of the government decisions that have left her behind in Gondar.
Lake runs a small drink business from her home, selling cold Cokes and Sprites. She is married with two children, though her husband is not Jewish, and she thinks perhaps that is the reason her family was not on the lists for aliyah.
“The Jewish Agency said that everyone who has family will get there,” she said. “Aliyah needs to happen. There are people in Gondar for 10, 20, 26 years. We’ve been waiting and now it’s time for us to make aliyah.”
Eighteen-year-old Almenesh Ytagew, in the midst of cleaning for Passover at the Gondar synagogue on April 21, 2016, dreams of serving in the Israeli army when she makes aliyah. (Melanie Lidman/Times of Israel)
Almenesh Ytagew, 18, student, Gondar
Alemnesh Ytagew, 18, is anxious to get to Israel as soon as possible so she can serve in the army. “In Israel, I want to go to ulpan [Hebrew language classes], and then go into the army in order to protect Israel,” she said. After her army service, she hopes to become a teacher, and would like to teach Judaic subjects in public school.
Ytagew has lived in Gondar for nine years with her mother, grandmother and two sisters. Her father died a number of years ago. She is from the village of Singisam, in Gojam region. Other family members from Singisam gave up after a period in Gondar, and returned to the village.
“It was hard for them in Gondar. They had no money, they were here for a short time but went back,” she said. Jews were already in the lower class in Ethiopia because they could not own land. When the Jews left their villages and moved to Gondar to await aliyah, many struggled to make ends meet among higher rents and few options for work. Leaving the villages also meant the intricate social networks that supported them collapsed in the urban environment.
It’s unclear how many Jewish Ethiopians are still in villages in the Gojam region, though their distance from Gondar and lack of participation in the Jewish community may render them unable to make aliyah in the current wave of 9,000.
In the meantime,Ytagew is waiting. “They said that hopefully we will come soon,” she said. “I came with other people from the village who have made aliyah. So why not us?”
Tigabu Worku, 27, in the youth group meeting room of the Addis Ababa synagogue on May 6, 2016. (Melanie Lidman/Times of Israel)
Tigabu Worku, 27, cantor, Addis Ababa
When Tigabu Worku, the cantor of the Addis Ababa population, leads the community in song, he closes his eyes and his whole body sways, taken over by the music. Over the past years, with the help of YouTube and visiting Israeli volunteers, he has taught the community dozens of songs, both in Amharic and Hebrew. He spends hours scouring YouTube for Hebrew songs whose message speaks to a community yearning for Israel. He likes everyone from Ashkenzi Haredi singers to Sarit Hadad, with a special affinity for Eyal Golan’s “Mi Shemaamin Lo Mifached” (“Whoever believes will not be afraid”).
The youth group loves to sing and meets before services to sing as they wait for the community to gather for Kabbalat Shabbat. As the thunder rolls across Addis Ababa, bringing a much-needed downpour, the rain pounding on the tin roof provides natural syncopation to the familiar Hebrew melodies. But Worku hopes that the songs about Israel and faith and God’s compassion for the Nation of Israel will soon be more than just hopeful words.
“I read that Jews are happy to help Jews, that Jews live for Jews,” said Worku. “So what about us? We are bleeding here.”
“They in Israel know we’re Jewish, but they don’t take me. My grandmother and grandfather are there – it’s nonsense. What does Jewish mean, if you’re only going to leave us here? Is it because we’re black? Who created us? We didn’t choose black or white. God created us, and if they believe in God they have to respect the creation of God – all of God’s creations.”
Samuel Araya, 32, with his motorcycle taxi in Gondar. Having only recently discovered his Judaism, he is worried people think he is trying to take advantage of aliyah to Israel, and he is struggling to find proof of his mother’s Judaism. (Miriam Alster/Flash 90)
Samuel Araya, 32, motorcycle taxi driver, Gondar
“The problem is that I don’t have any evidence that I’m Jewish,” said Samuel Araya, 32, who drives a three-wheeled motorcycle taxi in Gondar. Araya’s family history is complicated. He said his mother was a secret mistress to his father, who had a separate family. Araya’s mother died when he was a baby, and his father arranged for him to live with a neighbor in Gondar, but had little contact with him. Araya did not have a good relationship with his stepmother and left home at age 12, living on the streets and doing whatever odd jobs he could do to survive.
“When I was 14, a guy from my mother’s home talked to me and told me lots of things about my real mother, and that she’s Jewish,” said Araya. “I tried to verify things about my real mother with my father many times, but he said he has another family and he’s not interested. He said if they knew about me – both that I was his son and also about the Judaism – it would be very bad.”
Without proof of Judaism, Araya knows his chances of making it to Israel are slim. He has not registered with the Jewish Agency, meaning he is not on the list of 9,000 Jews approved to make aliyah. He hopes to locate his birth mother’s grave, to see if perhaps it is in a Jewish cemetery or has other markings that show her religion.
In a country with no birth or death certificates, proof of Judaism can be difficult to obtain. And as extended families and out-of-wedlock children further complicate matters, the challenge of sorting through who is Jewish is even more difficult.
“I am always feeling in my heart that I’m a Jew,” said Araya. But since he only started attending synagogue two years ago, he also knows that people are suspicious of his motives. “If I go to the synagogue, since I’m shy, in my mind I’m worried that most people think that I’m going to synagogue just because I’m trying to go to Israel.”
Slowly, he said, as he gets to know members of the Jewish community, he’s starting to feel more accepted, though often he prays at home instead of the synagogue because he feels closer to the religion by himself. “If you’re a Jewish person, they expect you to go to synagogue,” he said.
Araya was raised as an Ethiopian Orthodox Christian and taught that “Falasha” or Jews were evil and dirty. Now, his motorcycle taxi is decorated with Israeli flags, a fact that often brings unwanted attention when he is in the majority-Muslim marketplace. He wears shirts emblazoned with the flag as well.
“One hundred percent definitely I will go to Israel,” said Araya. “This is God’s promise to me. I just don’t know how He’ll do it.”
Ermias Gebrie, 17, in one of the Gondar synagogue classrooms on April 25, 2016. Gebrie has been the Bnei Akiva leader in Gondar for the past six months. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)
Ermias Gebrie, 17, Bnei Akiva leader, Gondar
The hour before the Bnei Akiva kids perform “Ehad Mi Yodea” (“Who knows one?”) before 3,000 community members at the annual Passover seder, Ermias Gebrie is jumping up and down in the back room, trying to get the youth excited. “Sing loud! Do the hand motions! Smile!” A dozen members of the youth group are wearing the blue-laced white Israeli Bnei Akiva shirts, helping to arrange the 50 children in lines and assisting with the hand motions.
Gebrie is the new leader for Bnei Akiva, and he takes his position seriously.
“We work hard,” he said. “When our chanichim go to Israel, we know it will be hard, but they can say, ‘I’m going to go to Bnei Akiva,’ and maybe it will be less hard.”
When everything in Israel is strange and new, there will still be vestiges of home, words like “chanichim,” “madrichim,” or the same Bnei Akiva shirt, he said.
“If I go to another place it will change me, but the goal of Bnei Akiva is to prepare for going to Israel so we will be together and succeed in our lives in Israel,” he said.
Gebrie has been overseeing Gondar’s Bnei Akiva for the past six months. He has 180 “chanichim,” or participants, and 10 “madrichim,” or counselors, who are between the ages of 15-19.
While Bnei Akiva Israel hasn’t yet sent financial support, they have sent volunteers from Israel to help Gebrie get the youth group off the ground and troubleshoot the challenges of starting a group for teenagers.
Gebrie thinks his family was left off the list for aliyah because they cannot count seven generations of matrilineal Judaism. His mother is Jewish, but his mother’s father is not Jewish. The family recently located estranged cousins in Kiryat Shmona, through the help of an Israeli Bnei Akiva volunteer, so are hoping that filing papers in Israel for family reunification will help speed up their aliyah process.
“We meet Tuesday and Thursday, and we have a really good connection,” said Gebrie. “On Shabbat and on Sunday, we teach the kids. We have Bnei Akiva shirts. We helped the kids prepare for Pesach. We do their classes as best we can, using what’s in the library. We work hard.”
Atenkut Setataw (right), with his wife Alesa Netere (left) and a neighbor hosting a coffee ceremony for visitors outside of their home in Gondar. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)
Atenkut Setataw, 25, teacher and cantor
Atenkut Setataw is one of those millennials addicted to Whatsapp. In between directing the successful operation to hand bake 50,000 pieces of matzah before Passover or leading daily services, he’s constantly hovering over the device, sending messages and pictures back and forth. But the Whatsapp messages are not just chatter with local friends — it’s his only connection to his family.
Setataw’s mother died in childbirth, and he was raised by his aunt and uncle, who he considers to be like his parents. But his aunt and uncle moved to Israel nine years ago, leaving a teenage Setataw, and Setataw’s older brother, behind in Ethiopia. Because Setataw and his brother are not part of his uncle’s biological immediate family, he was not approved for aliyah with the rest of his cousins.
“Now we meet on Whatsapp,” he said. Setataw’s quick grasp of Hebrew while studying at the NACOEJ school in Gondar made him a natural hazzan (cantor), and he has also taught Judaism classes at school and the synagogue.
The distance from his family has proved challenging, especially when Setataw wanted to get married. Traditionally, marriages in many of the Jewish families in Gondar are arranged or approved by the bride and groom’s families. All of Setataw’s family was in Israel, except for his older brother and grandfather. Setataw’s uncle, acting in the role of father, ended up approving the marriage by phone from his home in Jerusalem. Last year, Setataw married Alesa Netere, 20.
Netere also has family in Israel, an aunt and uncle. “Alesa’s uncle, her mother’s brother, went to Sudan 34 years ago and then to Israel,” said Setataw. “A few years ago, he called Alesa’s mother and said ‘we thought you died because you haven’t been in touch for so long!’”
Now, with the help of technology, the families are in regular contact. But Setataw says it is not enough. “We’ve been waiting such a long time,” he said. “Hopefully with God’s help, this year, we’ll go to Israel and we’ll all be there together.”
Mulu Lagese, 74, in her rental home in Gondar, Ethiopia, on April 24, 2016. Lagese is likely suffering from a goiter, which is linked to a lack of iodine. (Miriam Alster/Flash 90)
Mulu Lagese, 74, grandmother, Gondar
After 74 years in Ethiopia, Mulu Lagese knows that moving to Israel will be a big shock to everything that she knows. Still, she holds out hope that after 18 years of living in a rented mud-walled shack in Gondar, she will be able to join her nieces and nephews in Israel.
Her husband died waiting to make aliyah, and she hopes she and her two grown children will also get the chance to see Jerusalem. She shares the courtyard with other Jewish families waiting to move to Israel, drying hot peppers in the sun that give Ethiopian food its special kick.
“I miss my family,” she said, simply. “I want to go to Israel.”